June 26, 2009

Sweden’s farewell to conscription

Last week, the Swedish parliament narrowly (153 votes in favour, 150 against) voted to pass a bill drafted by the government which suspends conscription to the Swedish Armed Forces. More than a century-old institution of universal duty to do military service for the Swedish state was put on a shelf and will be brought back to life only in a case of national defence emergency and when military preparedness requires it. If it happens, it will also be gender-neutral: that is, all men and women of suitable age and health will be drafted. But, for now, national defence duty will be done strictly on a voluntary basis, and the Swedish Armed Forces will switch to the all-volunteer force (AVF) format.

Last week, the Swedish parliament narrowly (153 votes in favour, 150 against) voted to pass a bill drafted by the government which suspends conscription to the Swedish Armed Forces. More than a century-old institution of universal duty to do military service for the Swedish state was put on a shelf and will be brought back to life only in a case of national defence emergency and when military preparedness requires it. If it happens, it will also be gender-neutral: that is, all men and women of suitable age and health will be drafted. But, for now, national defence duty will be done strictly on a voluntary basis, and the Swedish Armed Forces will switch to the all-volunteer force (AVF) format.

Thus, Sweden follows in the footsteps of many other European countries, which chose to abolish or suspend conscription in the recent years. Back in the late 1990s, this post-Cold War trend was elaborated under the headline of “decline of conscription” thesis by the Swiss military sociologist Karl W. Haltiner. He famously summarised in his seminal article “The Definite End of the Mass Army in Western Europe?” (Armed Forces & Society, Vol. 25, No. 1, 1998) that “the combination of being a member of a defence alliance and being far from a direct national military threat and participating frequently in international missions facilitates the abolishment of conscription and the change of the army format.” Judging from the evidence up until now, the assertion holds. But the Swedish decision merits some closer scrutiny, not least because it leaves such stalwart supporters of conscription in our region as Finland and Estonia in a somewhat awkward position.

What one needs to understand is that adopting or abandoning certain format of the armed forces is a process dictated by a combination of military-strategic and socio-political factors. At the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, Sweden’s military concerns were about availability of manpower being too dependent on economic cycles (easier to recruit when the economy tanks; more difficult when it thrives) as well as about the need for large masses on the battlefield to cope with and benefit from the effects of the Industrial Revolution on warfare. At the same time, politicians saw the opportunity to use military draft as a means to foster more egalitarian society and social mobility. Duty to do military service became interwoven with the civic rights, entrenching the concept of “one man, one gun, one vote”. The result was the concept of the duty to defend, or värnplikt.

In Sweden, perhaps more than anywhere else, being conscripted has always been a matter of honour and civic virtue and a part of the broad social contract, very much underpinning Swedish society and its relationship with the state. More importantly, värnplikt as a concept has been deliberately kept vague and ambiguous with regard to specific – the point eloquently discussed by Anna Leander in her excellent study “Enduring Conscription: Vagueness and Värnplikt in Sweden“. This elasticity of the meaning of the duty to defend allowed to continuously adapt it to the changing social conditions and provide a point for converging of political consensus, while retaining its military utility and effectiveness.

Värnplikt at the start of the 21st century definitely was not the same as värnplikt at the start of the 20th century. Although all men were still enlisted, only very few of them had to actually do military service (around 15% of the conscript age cohort). There were more volunteers to do it than the Swedish Armed Forces actually needed it. And, in synch with the trends elsewhere, the socio-political role of the military organisation ceased to be nation-building or creation of more egalitarian society. As Anna Leander explains, it has increasingly fashioned itself as a promoter of cosmopolitan values such as integration of ethnic and sexual minorities and, especially, further emancipation of women. However, all this could be achieved by just further tweaking the notion of värnplikt and making sure mandatory conscription was extended to immigrant youth or women. So, why such a move to suspend conscription altogether?

First of all, not quite unexpectedly, strains in the socio-political dimension became too large even for the elastic värnplikt to be able to continue incorporating mandatory military service. Highly selective conscription, when only a small proportion of the members of society are requested to perform military service, inevitably create a sense of injustice and inequality (“why me, and not him or her?“ or, even more importantly for Sweden, “why him or her, but not me???”). Furthermore, the link between military participation and civic rights such as suffrage has long been gone: one’s right to vote is not tied with one’s obligation to serve in modern democratic societies. So, conscription as a pivotal element of värnplikt ran into troubles with the realities of the social contract in Sweden. True, the military probably would love to retain their privileged and easy access to manpower by means of conscription, but such a utilitarian argument hardly strikes the right tunes to the ears of a critical public.

However, ripe as it may have been from a socio-political perspective (although, judging from the margin of vote in the parliament, definitely not uncontroversial), the shift would have been impossible without the right strategic context. Several factors have to be born in mind. First, Sweden seems to regard international operations and expeditionary warfare as the main preoccupation of its armed forces now and in the future. It does not envisage a threat of a massive military invasion, but rather views sources of Sweden’s insecurity as geographically distant and diffuse, requiring projection of military power (in conjunction with other instruments) beyond Sweden’s national borders. And, despite the encouragement to volunteer for international operations, conscripts are not seen as either good for these purposes or politically acceptable.

Secondly, just as many other advanced military organisations, Swedish Armed Forces has been doing a lot to jump on a bandwagon of the Revolution in Military Affairs and replace manual labour with sophisticated technology. Increasingly high-tech force calls for more extensive, deeper and much longer training and education than the conscripts could possibly receive within a limited duration of service, even if they were coming from such a technologically savvy and literate society as Swedish. With management of organised means of violence becoming so complex and requiring a great degree of specialisation as well as continuous learning, conscription in its current form makes little sense (unless, of course, reverting back to the feudal Middle Ages model of drafting soldiers for a few decades). Add the ever-growing budgetary pressures and the imperative of prioritising scarce financial resources, and the Swedish government’s decision appears even more natural and logical.

Of course, each decision carries its own risks, both strategic-military and socio-political, which must be appreciated and managed carefully. Retention of the Total Defence Act as well as värnplikt itself, with the open possibility to reintroduce conscription, is part of risk management by the Swedish government. On the other hand, the question arises whether it is enough. If Haltiner’s equation, cited in the beginning of this commentary, still holds, then the element of belonging to a collective defence alliance is conspicuously absent. So, NATO membership comes next?

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